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100% Renewable Electricity to Power the World by 2050? It's Happening, Study Says

Windorah's Solar Farm dishes taken from the roadside (Diamantina Developmental Road) on a hot summer day. Aaronazz / Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

If you think a world powered by 100 percent renewable electricity—and significantly cheaper than today's—is an impossible dream, there's a surprise in store for you. A new study says it's already in the making.

A global transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, far from being a long-term vision, is happening now, the study says. It is the work of Finland's Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG), and was published at the UN climate change conference, COP23, which is meeting here.


The authors say a global electricity system based entirely on renewable energy will soon be feasible day in, day out, at every moment throughout the year, and would be more cost-effective than the existing system, based largely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Current renewable energy potential and technologies, crucially including storage to guarantee a constant power supply, can generate sufficient secure power to meet the entire world's electricity demand by 2050, they argue. With political backing it could happen even sooner.

The total levelized cost of electricity—roughly, the average cost—for 100 percent renewable electricity in 2050 would be €52/MWh (approximately $68/MWh), compared with €70/MWh (approximately $92/MWh) in 2015.

There is no silver bullet in their approach. Their model—the first of its kind, they say—simply simulates the most efficient energy supply with an optimal mix of technologies and locally available renewable resources.

A transition to 100 percent renewables would bring greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector down to zero and drastically reduce total losses in power generation. It would create 36 million jobs by 2050, the study says, 17 million more than the sector has today.

Cost saving

"There is no reason to invest one more dollar in fossil fuel or nuclear power production," said EWG president Hans-Josef Fell. "Renewable energy provides cost-effective power supply.

"All plans for further expansion of coal, nuclear, gas and oil must be stopped. More investment needs to be channelled into renewable energies and the necessary infrastructure . Everything else will lead to unnecessary costs and increasing global warming."

"A full decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050 is possible for lower system cost than today, based on available technology. Energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will," said Christian Breyer, lead author of the study and professor of solar economy at LUT.

His last point has been made many times already. Nearly five years ago researchers said Australia could by 2023 rely entirely on renewable energy—if it could summon up enough political will.

In 2014 another study said it was only a lack of political determination that was preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels altogether. And earlier this year, in one of his last presidential statements, Barack Obama said he believed the U.S. was engaged in an "irreversible shift" to clean energy.

Losses cut

The world population is expected to grow from 7.3 to 9.7 billion people this century. Global electricity demand is likely to double by mid-century, from 24,310 TWh in 2015 to around 48,800 TWh by 2050. Because of their rapidly falling costs, solar photovoltaic (PV) power and battery storage increasingly drive most of the electricity system.

Global greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced, the study says, from about 11 GtCO2eq in 2015 to zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, as the total LCOE of the power system declines.

The losses in a 100 percent renewable electricity system are around 26 percent of total electricity demand, compared with the current system in which about 58 percent of the primary energy input is lost.

The study is a challenge for policymakers and politicians, the authors say, as it refutes an argument frequently used by critics of renewable fuels—that they cannot provide a full energy supply on an uninterruptible basis.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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